Indian cricket is now in an eerily familiar place. A savage missile laden with combustible fuel has attacked its top floor. The flames are in spate. Yet the occupant of that office imagines they will subside and ultimately extinguish, like they have in the past when lower floors were attacked. He clings to power merely for its sake. He is man of cricket, possibly ravaged by the excesses and indiscretions of his son-in-law. Privately turmoil may consume him, but publicly he must fight, for he knows no other way. But the steel in the edifice is starting to melt and a collapse lurks menacingly near.
While the gimmickry, manipulations and carefully constructed public pronouncements are no surprise given how this cricket board is nothing but a collective of political strongmen, it is the deeper unravelling of the current structure of our game that must worry us. While the police conduct its probe, the newsmen make their noise and the indignant fan vents via a throaty boo, the leadership of the Indian game has fallen prey to an undeniable avarice.
I watched MS Dhoni's press conference in horror the other evening. Here was a vital young man blessed not just with the gift of playing the game- Dhoni can be charming and self-deprecating, bright and witty, insightful and sensitive. On this evening he wasn't allowed or didn't allow himself to be any of those. Handcuffed, he needed protecting from a two-bit official each time an 'uncomfortable' question was asked. Anyone who has watched a Dhoni media interaction in the past knows the man has a view and a voice. Dhoni often goes into great detail to explain his point of view and rarely deals in clichés. The mischievous misquote doesn't worry the skipper, instead it is a source of amusement. He likes to banter with journalists and is often heard asking at the end of press conferences, 'Aaj ke episode ka masala mil guya?'
It is precisely why I wondered who was the man muzzled at the other end of the microphone the other evening? Was he the captain of India's cricket team? Or was he still the captain of a franchise owned by the president of the Indian cricket board who is in a fight to the finish to protect his chair? Or was he the vice-president of the company owned by the same man? Does his 'contract' with the BCCI reduce him to a managerial role in the grand behemoth that is Indian cricket? Will the eminence of the position of India captain now be subservient to a diktat?
For decades now, the Indian cricket captain is a role held in high reverence. He leads a team that represents the Indian people. His word carries weight, his actions carry consequences. When driven he can transform more than merely the playing culture of his team- think Nawab of Pataudi. When ambitious he can shatter myths of fragility- think Sourav Ganguly. When intense- he can lead by the sheer dent of performance- think Rahul Dravid. When compromised- he can sink the collective faith of millions- think, well you know who.
Dhoni has an iconic place in the pantheon of Indian captains not merely for his statistical achievements- World Cups and Test series wins aside, his story gets told with wonder and awe. From a forgotten outpost, here was the ultimate triumph of merit over all else. He was no one's boy. He was his own man. But it now seems once he was handed the yellow uniform, saved from the axe in the India job and then handed a corporate visiting card, he did become beholden- A contract worker at best, his master's non-voice at worst.
Dhoni's silence on that fateful Mumbai evening is troubling because it offered a mirror into what drives the Indian game now- A vast enterprise that brackets individuals within it as profit generators and spin doctors. Here was a captain confronted with a brutal reality - one of the men who stood beside him to celebrate his greatest accomplishment in cricket was in jail facing charges of spot-fixing. The man he had run a team alongside in the summer months over the last few years was allegedly using inside information to punt on results and perhaps much worse.
If Dhoni was in despair, he was asked to hide behind pretence. If he felt the urge to comfort followers of the game, he was instructed to keep a lid on it. Instead he pontificated on the faith he had in his new ball attack and the challenge of adapting to the new rules for one-day cricket. He was dumped in the alternate universe where denial was paramount and a reality check was a diversion to be swatted aside.
Cricket treasures legacy. This isn't a mere punch-line. Board officials will come and go and for everything they contribute to the game, they will remain footnotes in history. It is critical to remember that for each and every member of the BCCI, cricket is a secondary occupation- they draw sustenance from their political, legal and business lives. Cricket administration is a tool to gain prominence, enjoy influence and in some cases, contribute to a game they relish.
The Indian cricket captain is a stark contrast. When in that position, he is that first and all else after. He engages not just with his players, but also with his people. He is appointed by a handful of men but embraced by a nation, grudgingly at times but embraced he is. He may be humble, but CAN NOT be meek. He may be polite, but CAN NOT be servile. He may be required to be tactful, but CAN NOT be mute.
In his time as captain, there was never overt evidence of Dhoni being anything but his own man. So his job was saved by Mr Srinivasan once, but did he make a pitch for it? So he was the skipper of the BCCI's president's IPL team, but did that naturally translate into job security as India captain? So he accepted a position as vice-president of India Cements, but couldn't that be just be some sort of brand building exercise, thought up by an enthusiastic corporate honcho?
After this press conference though, the gnawing doubts returned. Had the gobbledygook of management principles and corporate responsibility consumed a position that draws sustenance from intense emotion? Is the captain of India now expected merely to tom-tom public relations niceties and discuss possible team combinations? Must he not comfort in a crisis, assure in a tsunami of doubt, restore faith when belief is crumbling?
Beyond the tiresome rhetoric of contractual obligations and team protocols is the essential meat and bones of this situation- this is game that places captains on a pedestal. The reward of the position burdens them with the task of leadership- while setting fields AND while addressing its followers. Mahendra Singh Dhoni abdicated that on Tuesday, perhaps under instructions from a small-minded group of people. Mahi- shoo away the puppeteers and reclaim your eminence. Don't allow the rampaging jet fuel to burn anymore and bring the whole building down.
First Published: May 30, 2013, 10:10 AM IST